Can We Really Engineer Our Way Out of Climate Change?

Can We Really Engineer Our Way Out of Climate Change?

Groundbreaking innovations throughout the last decade has continually nudged us all to bear witness to the very many amazing feats of green technology. As an aside, green tech here loosely refers to technology that is considered environmentally-friendly based on its production process or supply chain. It also may refer to a means of energy production that is less harmful to the environment than more traditional ways of generating energy, such as burning fossil fuels. 

Within this period, we’ve seen electric cars gradually go mainstream and witnessed the demand for diesel driven cars very rapidly fall. But best of all (in my opinion at least), green tech steadily climbed to assume its place in the new order. From small consumer products like fridges to bigger facilities and infrastructure like roads and bridges, people, companies and businesses worldwide strived increasingly to make their products “green” and eco-friendly. Whether through the use of more renewable products or by insistence on reduced energy consumption all through a production process, this major shift towards greener technology swiftly became accepted as a crucial aspect of the global culture for our continued survival on our planet.

Can We Really Engineer Our Way Out of Climate Change??

Currently therefore, we are as technologically advanced and as eco-conscious as we have ever been in history. In light of this degree of progress, a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions and global warming was expected as a consolidation of sorts, and rightly so. Our hopes and expectations in this regard have been repeatedly dashed because in that same decade, carbon emissions into the environment actually increased. This right there makes me wonder; What did we miss? Can we still engineer our ways out of adverse climate change? Curiously, my answers to these questions aren’t as positive as one might expect.

Let me be the first to declare my implicit belief in technology and the science community to develop even more incredible green innovations and unlock various sources of renewable energy for us all. There’s no denying it; engineers and technologists are awesome. The problem is, this implicit belief of mine goes hand-in-hand with logical reasoning. Which is in turn furnished with intense observation and interactions with people. All of which leads me to conclude that the issue of adverse climate change cannot be completely arrested by engineering alone, precisely because it transcends the ambits of engineering. This is a multi-faceted issue. It is economic, and financial, as well as political but most of all, it is a people problem.

Now the most technologically advanced countries seem to be responsible for the most carbon emissions. The more tech-savvy a nation gets, the more recklessly it seems to produce, all of which translates in increased strain and danger for the environment. China for instance, ranks number one on the list of the most industrialised nations of the world and first or second (depending on source and measurement metrics) in carbon emissions.

Wealthier cities have turned to technology as a last resort, but have also begun to realize that there is so much engineering alone can take. For instance, in the face of increased flooding experienced of late in coastal cities such as Florida, city councils have begun to build more infrastructure to cope with rising water levels. From higher culverts to storm proof beams, these cities understandably hope to engineer infrastructure to better withstand the coming deluge (predictions say Florida may be totally under water by the end of the century).

Experts, however speculate that this step alone may not be enough. Even in the places where such engineering efforts prove successful, there is always a question of the attendant costs. Both on the environment and on the rest of mankind. The issue turns financial for cities like New Orleans in many parts of which the city councils are too poor to carry out the engineering projects that may well save them. This financial problem also turns political when the powers that be begin to decide which states get assistance and get saved (and the expected returns from such aid) and which ones will not make the cut. 

Another reason why engineering alone does not have the answer we seek bothers on the concept of the economics of climate change. This very simply refers to the economic benefits that individuals, corporations or countries derive from the current state of things; those current benefits that make it rather difficult, profit-wise, to make the world more sustainable for the long-term regardless of how hard the engineers work. For instance, in countries totally dependent on oil, fuel for cars is often exclusively diesel or petrol and millions are made from the importation and sale of generators. The effect is that solar panels, the use of which would be more sustainable for the country, would remain extremely costly and scarce owing to the policies of a market controlled by oil giants. 

Parallel to the foregoing is the fact that engineering our way out continually results in building more. And building more means taking even more resources from the environment. Let’s take electric cars for example. Cars like Tesla are moving wells of electronics and computers. These are made mostly from cobalt which is mined from the earth. We might not know it yet, but that might be another environmental disaster waiting to happen. When the United States under President Bush made the declaration that the US was going to move towards the use of ethanol, it was touted in most quarters to be nothing short of awesome. Twelve years after the declaration, that singular decision is held responsible for the palm oil crisis in places like Borneo and Cambodia.  

Climate change might have started out as a tech problem either because the engines we produced weren’t good enough, or because our perspirants released too much carbon into the atmosphere. At that point, the solution might have been more straight forward than it is today but we have gone past the starting point now. Even the best of scientific and technological solutions alone no longer cuts it. 

At the end of the day, it boils down to inclusivity and the combined efforts of the world’s peoples at various levels in addition to engineering where needed, to better grapple with the problem of climate change. It is people who must make the individual choices to go green because it is people who have pushed Earth to its brink. It lies on us to do what we can, starting off from wherever we can to reverse the damage caused. We can no longer heap all this on Technology’s doorstep and tweedle our thumbs while waiting for the magic solution.

We too must help.

The science community alone cannot get us out of this one. 

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